Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 11

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith

VII

 

28

 

The dance floor was full at the Charity Café, the bar had every stool with a customer; the poker table, the board game table, and the Tarot readers were busy. Every chair and couch was taken throughout the lounge.

Titus sat on the red couch nursing an exotic fruit drink, waiting for Oriana. She was already a half-hour late and several women had come up to him asking if he wanted to dance.

To his surprise two of his own students were there: Midia and Charlotte. He saw them first at the bar. When they started to move toward his lounge area, he hid behind a bunch of dancers and sat down at one of the large rectangular tables at the end of the room. He did not think they would see him there.

Others walked up to him and sat at the table. Chernyshevsky, Shankara, Leibniz, Shelley, and Plotinus lined across from him. Marat and Michel sat on one side of him, Kropotkin and Alice Paul sat on the other. In due time, standing behind Chernyshevsky and the rest was Zhuang Zi, Mahavira, and Siddhartha.

“It’s the rising,” Siddhartha said.

Zhuang Zi and Mahavira agreed.

“The path is open,” Chernyshevsky said.

“Look deeper,” Marat said. “The people have spoken.”

“But it’s not only people, is it?” Leibniz said. “It’s what happens when the stick in the water seems crooked and somehow someone must find a way to make that stick straight. Yet the stick is straight. And the water is not responsible. It’s always been straight. What is it then?”

Then each of them took the hand of the one next to them until they all were connected. Titus closed his eyes from the strain of seeing all of them. When he opened his eyes, the figures had merged with each other and burst into a ring of gold that encircled him and then dissipated.

In place of the dissipated ring, standing before him, were his two students.

“Professor Ketkar,” Charlotte said with a wide smile. “तुम यहां क्या कर रहे हो?”[i]

“Meeting a friend,” he said.

There was an awkward silence. He assumed they expected him to invite them to the table.

“I’ve never seen you here before,” Titus said.

“Unuafoje.” Midia said. “Ni aŭdis pri ĉi tiu loko kaj ni pensis, ke ni provos ĝin.”[ii]

Another moment of silence. Titus smiled.

“Esperanto. Mi estas impresita. Kiel vi ŝatas ĝin?”[iii]

“Facila,”[iv] Charlotte said.

“Great. But remember, for the conditional, use eble with provos or even provus for ‘would’ or ‘might’. Of course, with an ‘if’ clause, always use the ‘us’ ending.”

Normally he would have talked more about Esperanto, but he did not want to invite them to sit down, knowing that Oriana was coming.

“I’ve waiting for Oriana,” Titus said.

They both nodded in a way that indicated neither of them knew her.

“Ados, astelehenean klasean ikusiko gara,”[v] Charlotte said.

Titus’s face showed that he was confused. He did not immediately recognize the language.

Midia and Charlotte were both smiling. Then they laughed.

“We got you,” Midia said.

Titus smiled. He could not remember the last time he used that tongue.

“It’s Basque. Or our poor version of it. We only studied up the last month.”

They waved as they both merged in with the crowd of people in the lounge.

Titus was now alone at the huge table. The disc was resting on the table in front of him with the word ‘pamoghenan.’

Oriana walked toward him. She wore a long gold gown and crown. Her shoes looked as if they were made of glass or crystal and rimmed with jewels. People moved out of her way as she headed toward him, as commoners would to a princess, leaving a path for her to walk.

He had never seen her look so lovely and regal.

When she was next to him, she leaned down and kissed him. There was no smile: her face was grim. Titus stood up and pulled out the chair for her.

When she was settled and an ordered a drink, she whispered:

“A student fell or jumped off the rooftop of the Ames Building this morning.”

Oriana moved her chair closer to him.

“She apparently was up there with two other students. After one student left, another student claimed that she jumped off. He said he also spotted a weird creature flying around just after.”

“Do you have a video of it?” Titus asked.

She showed him the video.

“It’s all over the Net,” she said. “As you can see, it kind of looks like the creature we saw at Sophia’s dinner, but larger, much larger. This one was as big as a trumpeter swan. But the face was smashed in.”

Titus could not stop staring at Oriana’s gown while they brought her a cocktail spritzer.

“Stop staring at me like that. I just came from the Medieval Festival. The entire area from Spadina to University on College was filled with Medieval stuff. They let you wear these gowns. If you win, you get to keep them. I won.”

“Why did you win?” Titus asked.

“I don’t know. Just luck. I had the winning ticket. By the way, I saw a couple of your students.”

“So did I.,” Titus said. “They didn’t mention anything about the suicide.”

“Maybe they don’t know. By the time it was known, they closed down the festival.”

“Because of the death?”

“No,” Oriana said, “because of the creature, perhaps the same one from the roof, or some other wild mad beast that was scaring people. I never saw it, but many did. They say it had a long red tail, smooth but bumpy skin, no fur, a large frog-like head with huge eyes and a big mouth with giant teeth.”

“What did the police do?” Titus asked. Titus knew that it was Ratanna—the effect of when a god is unstable—but he was trying to think of questions someone would ask if they did not know.

“It got away, still roaming the downtown area. But the police are out in droves looking for it.”

“Let’s hope they catch it before we go home,” Titus said.

“More bad news. A fierce rainstorm has started.”

Just then the Manager of the Charity Café came on to the loudspeaker:

“We’re sorry to announce, but we’ll have to close as soon as possible because of the weather. The rain has started coming down heavily and will continue for several hours. There’s a good chance it will begin to flood this café. Please be careful. Also, we’re told there’s a wild beast on the loose in the downtown area. Due to this danger, please take public transit or a taxi and stay in a group.

“Please don’t exit through the front entrance of the Café. Line up at the door at the rear. There are many outside who want to come in to escape the weather. Not only couldn’t we accommodate all of them, but we’ve been told by the authorities that we shouldn’t let them in due to security problems, lack of electricity, and the almost certain chance we’ll be flooded. Many of them are homeless and desperate people, and potentially dangerous mental patients from the Queen Street Mental Care facility. Several taxis have been called and will be in the alleyway in the rear. We will let you out two by two into the alley. Don’t walk west toward Bathurst where the mob is. Walk to the alleyway that leads up north to King. Please be careful. Wear your masks. The lights are out and there are some deep pits in the alleyway. We apologize for this inconvenience, but it’s for your safety. Because we’re in the basement, it is prone to floods.”

Since they were underground, the customers could hear but not see those outside pounding on the main entrance.

None of the Café guests had coats or umbrellas to shield them from the heavy downpour outside. Fortunately, no one had to travel far to reach the taxis or transit. They would take the alley up to King Street, cross King, and then walk back to Bathurst, and take the streetcar at Adelaide.

For Titus and Oriana, the Bathurst streetcar would take them up to College and from there it was a short walk to Titus’s apartment.

That was the plan for many of the customers, but when they reached Bathurst, there was no sign of a streetcar, only a road and streetcar tracks sunk in water. Streetlights were present but none of the lamps were lit. The rain was so heavy that water was flowing down the streets as if there were streams. The damage was far worse than what would come from a rainstorm.

The fortunate few had a car, though cars were useful only on the main streets. Other streets were or were becoming flooded. Most began to walk, the sidewalk edge barely above the water level on the street.

Titus and Oriana looked back at the Café entrance and saw that the mob had acquired a long pipe and were smashing the door of the Charity Café.

Titus turned and ran to stop them. Oriana followed.

When Titus and Oriana arrived, the mob had made a large dent in the door with the pipe. In the group were children and several elderly people whose homes were flooded and were seeking somewhere dry and safe. They were all soaked.

Titus pushed his way to the front and told them they could find more comfort at a respite station across from the carnival grounds entrance up the street. The Café area is tiny, he said, compared to that space. Also, soon the Café will be flooded.

“Come with me,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”

They followed him through the rain, up the road, over the bridge that crossed the train tracks, and then down the hill to Lake Shore Boulevard. Then they went west to the Center. The water was ankle deep near the Center, but fortunately they built the Center two feet off the ground.

“If there’s not enough room here,” Titus said when they arrived, “the Center will guide you to other places. There are also unused buildings on the carnival grounds where you can be dry and have access to water and toilets.”

By then the crowd had settled down. A few of them thanked them.

Titus and Oriana were drenched. They were more a part of the rain than distinct from it.

“Why don’t you stay with us?” one of them offered. “You’re already soaked. At least until morning.”

Just then, a car drove up next to them,

“Professor Ketkar, Professor Ketkar,” a woman’s voice called out from the backseat window of the car.

It was Charlotte and Midia.

“Hop in,” Midia said.

Titus and Oriana accepted the offer. The driver was his colleague Professor Lazan.

“Isn’t it weird?” Charlotte said. “Professor Lazan was driving by and saw us and offered us a lift home.”

“Actually, I was on an errand,” Lazan said, “when I saw these two walking up Bathurst.”

Oriana and Titus looked at each other with faces that doubted Lazan’s story. What errand would bring him out in such a storm?

“So lucky!” Midia said. “We were so worried about that wild thing and the crazies.”

“Perhaps you’ll be safer with us,” Oriana said. “The campus isn’t a good place to be right now.”

“That’s true,” Lazan said, “but my place is even better. Unlike Professor Ketkar’s apartment, which is near campus, mine is quite a distance away. You’ll be safer. I have extra rooms. My wife is also away. You’ll have the run of the place. I’m also on higher ground. There’ll be no flooding.”

“Thank you,” Charlotte said. “I don’t want to go back to the dorms with all these problems. What do you think, Midia?”

Midia did not immediately reply. She was staring at the sheets of rain that were falling in this dreary night and thinking about what might happen if she spent a night alone in a house with Lazan. Lazan made her feel uncomfortable, even though he was her advisor. The female students were uncomfortable when he touched their arms and shoulders and made flirtatious comments. He was condescending and authoritative to his wife when Midia had dined at his house with other graduate students.

“I think I’ll go with Professor Ketkar,” Midia said. “It’s closer to my place.’

“Fine,” Lazan said, “Charlotte, you’re still welcome. You’ll have plenty of privacy. And I’ll bring you back tomorrow.”

Lazan dropped off the three of them at Titus’s apartment building. They watched Lazan continue with Charlotte in the back seat.

The smell of debris and garbage was evident the moment they were inside his residence. Rats were scurrying around the hallway. Several holes in the roof were letting water flow down on to the vestibule. Most of the doors to the apartments were boarded up and parts of the stair railing were loose or separated from the stair supports. The building had aged quickly.

“It looks like this place has been deserted for years,” Midia said, voicing what Titus and Oriana were thinking. “What has happened?”

One of the steps on the stairs, its wood rotten from the moisture, broke when Midia stepped on it and her foot was caught. They freed her but they were careful with the other steps to reach Titus’s apartment on the second floor.

When they approached his door, it was hanging off its hinges and partially open. The paint was peeling off the walls. There was no furniture or any sign that someone had lived there for a long time.

Yet at least it was dry and warm enough for them to sleep. During the night, they heard sounds from within the building that made them believe others were squatting in the building too.

*

By the morning, the storm had passed, and the daylight indicated that his apartment was merely a sign of how the city itself had deteriorated. As Titus, Oriana, and Midia walked up Palmerston and east on College Street toward the university area, the effects were clear. Roads and sidewalks were completely torn up and plugged with mud and water. Deer, foxes, bears, and other animals never seen in the city were prowling the streets along with feral cats and dogs and the usual raccoons, squirrels, rats, and skunks. People were laying and sitting on the ground and the sidewalks in small groups, many of them in distress. Costumes from the festivals were scattered here and there. Several paramedic trucks were tending to some casualties.

Titus stopped to ask a paramedic how these injuries had happened.

“We’re not sure,” a paramedic said, “but, judging by the bites and scratches, it seems like a group of animals. Not sure the creature could have attacked all of them.”

Only one person was attacked by the creature. Starving animals had attacked in self-defence from people harassing or trying to kill them in their drunken or manic states.

That person was Aaron Lazan, killed by the creature as Aaron led Charlotte into his house. Charlotte watched the creature slit Lazan’s throat and drive a sharp claw into Lazan’s heart. Then the creature left without harming Charlotte.

Shaken and assuming the creature was not on campus, Charlotte took Lazan’s car and drove south on Bathurst back to the university area and her own dorm. But another problem greeted her there. Her car lights flashed on many wild animals on both Bathurst and College. When she finally reached the dorm area, it seemed in the darkness like a ghost town overrun with wild animals. The grounds were torn up as if they had been peppered with tiny bombs with debris flying everywhere.

Unsure what to do, Charlotte slept in the car in one of the university’s parking areas while animals prowled outside. In the morning, she drove to Professor Ketkar’s home, but his house seemed deserted. She was afraid to leave the car and drove back to the university, almost hitting two deer. There she saw Titus, Oriana, and Midia walking along College Street.

She parked the car and joined them, telling the story of the previous night, that Lazan had been murdered by a wild creature. As she relived the experience, she started to cry and became increasingly agitated until she could not stop shaking. Midia sat down with her against the brick wall of a building and tried to comfort her.

Titus found a police officer and told him Charlotte’s story.

“Where’s the creature now?” the police said curtly, as if Titus was hiding the creature and ignoring the attack on Lazan.

“As I said,” Titus said, “the creature went away. She doesn’t know in what direction and where it went.”

“Well, that’s doesn’t help much, does it? Where is she? Let me talk to her.”

“She’s over there, up against the building. She’s experiencing trauma. Now’s not a good time.”

“Oh really. When is? Look around you. Does this seem the right time to be patient?”

“Do you have any idea what’s happened?” Titus asked.

“No. Do you?”

“Yesterday everything seemed normal. This disaster happened overnight.”

“Yeah, well, it’s bad. Water and power are unreliable and somehow our roads and sidewalks have suffered what looks like many years of decay. Most of the buildings are abandoned. Even the caretakers and security people in the buildings were caught unaware. They woke up to this. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter are missing, our house razed--”

“—the lake has risen--”

“--yes, yes, that too. The lake has risen. But at least we knew that was coming.”

The police officer rushed off to someone calling for him.

“Best thing ever happened to us,” a woman’s voice came from behind him.

Titus turned around and saw Gretchen.

“Best thing ever happened,” she repeated. “The city in this condition. Kind of brings us back to the state of nature, right? You know, Rousseau, Hobbes, the state of nature.”

“The best thing?” Titus said. “Look around you. There’s suffering--

“--oh, don’t get me wrong,” she interrupted. “I pity them all. They’re not ready. They’re all very crippled from so many things. Anyway, you’re the man who’s going to save them, right? Oh, don’t look so surprised. You knew this was coming. You saw it before. Salvation is open through will, spirit, and art. They’re all in you.”

“I’m going to save them?” Titus said.

Oriana listened intently.

“Of course you are,” Gretchen said. “You’re going to make Dalworth for us. The key is Dalworth. Here comes the Mayor.”

Gretchen pointed toward a woman walking quickly from University Avenue.

“It’s Sophia,” Oriana said. “The Mayor is walking? Where’s her car?”

Sophia was clearly bedraggled. Her dress was ripped and muddy, with blotches of blood on the chest. Her eyes were blood-shot with bags under them. Her hair was uncombed and looked as if she had been through a windstorm.

“Finally!” she said when she reached them.

“What’s wrong?” Titus said.

“Never mind me. It’s a mess. We’ve caught the monster and the monster wants to talk to you. Only you. It’s at police headquarters. Come. Walk with me. Hurry.”

As they rushed toward Bay Street and College, Sophia gave a rundown on what she had dealt with that day. Gretchen remained a few steps behind them. Midia stayed with Charlotte.

“I woke up this morning,” Sophia said, “and there was no one around, no one to drive me, no one. Plus, there were no buses, no streetcar, or subway. No network. No phones. The whole city! Nothing! So I biked to work! In a dress.

“On my way, a woman and man recognized me and pulled me off my bike and said they wanted a gold disc for protection. You must have it, they said, you’re the Mayor. What the hell! Gold disc? ‘Where did you hear this?’ I asked them. ‘The creature told them,’ they said. The creature? The beast?”

Titus looked behind and saw the smile on Gretchen’s face. Gretchen and the gold disc. Titus shook his head thinking about Gretchen’s attempts to get him to accept his work.

“When I said I had no gold disc,” Sophia continued, “and didn’t know what they were talking about, they grabbed my purse and looked in it, then started to pull at my dress. Which I shouldn’t have worn in the first place, by the way. Finally, I got away and hopped back on my bike.

“On my way again, people lying on the street yelled out the same thing to me: “Give us the gold disc, give us the gold disc.” When I arrived at City Hall, dodging wild animals and people laying all over the place, I met a couple more ruffians who had the same question. ‘The gold disc,’ they said, ‘would clear everything up’. I told them, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help. I don’t know what it is.’ One of them was bleeding and had clearly been in a fight, but I didn’t want to know why. I ran away from them to the elevator and my office.

“When I reached my office, I could barely get in, there was so much junk everywhere. City Hall was empty. I’m thinking: Where’s security? There was no one on the floor, no one anywhere. So I left through another door and sought a police officer. I found one and he told me that they had trapped the monster and were holding it at the police headquarters on College Street.

“So I cycled over to College. When I arrived, they took me to the holding area and there I saw a larger version of that same flying creature we saw at the dinner. My god, it was unbelievable to see it there. It wouldn’t speak to me or to anyone else.

“As the Chief of Police and I were conferring privately about what to do next, the creature heard me mention your name. I said your name again, and it nodded. Obviously, it could speak, but chose not to. So I’ve been trying to find you, hoping it will talk to you.”

“How did you know I was here?” Titus asked.

“I didn’t,” Sophia said. “In my head someone said you’d be near College Street and King’s College Road.”

As they walked, groups of people on the ground reached out and grabbed the Mayor’s dress and asked for the gold disc. One ripped it so badly her underwear could be seen.

“Where have you hidden it?” one of people screamed. “You’re the Mayor. You know. We need it. Now!”

“I haven’t hidden anything!” the mayor shouted back. “I don’t even know what it looks like. Why do you need it? For protection from what?”

The woman gazed up at Sophia in surprise.

“Not only for protection,” she said. “To wake up. To get rid of you and all authorities. We need it to wake up or we’ll stay forever on the ground, unable to move very far. One day we’ll have to eat weeds, bugs, and worms. And there’s more.”

“Who told you this?” Oriana asked.

“The beast,” the woman said, “but we know it’s true.”

When they came near to the entrance of the headquarters, a very tall man stepped in front of them.

“Only Titus and Oriana,” he said.

“What? What do you mean?” Sophia said.

“Pay no attention,” Gretchen said. “Go by him.”

“Who are you?” Sophia asked. “Where are the police?”

“Not his concern, Madam Mayor,” Gretchen said, seeing it was Fischer. “Pass him by.”

The police arrived and stood on each side of the mayor. Fischer did not move.

“You told me where Titus was, didn’t you?” the mayor asked.

Fischer smirked.

“It’s fine, officers,” the mayor said. “He can help us with the creature. Let him go with Titus to the holding area.”

“That’s a mistake, Mayor,” Gretchen said. “You have no idea who is sitting in that cell. Fischer has no part in this.”

Sophia turned around and faced Gretchen.

“And you do?”

“You should listen to the voices.”

At that moment, Siddhartha, Mahavira and Zhuang Zi appeared and walked up to the mayor.

“Seek the way,” Zhuang Zi said. “Ignore the 10,000 things that obstruct you.”

“Listen to them,” Gretchen said.

Sophia was in awe of and frightened by the charisma of the phantoms. Their presence alone almost made her faint. But Sophia was even more in awe of Gretchen for reasons she could not explain.

“What do you recommend?” Sophia asked.

“Let the creature go,” Gretchen said. “You didn’t capture it. You can’t hold it.”

A loud laugh was heard from behind a pillar near the entrance. Everyone turned in that direction. Meanwhile, Gretchen walked away.

From behind it stepped Billy Wang.

His big smile greeted them all. He did not move toward them but remained up against the pillar.

“She’s right,” Wang said. “You could never have captured it unless it wanted you to. But right now, Titus must connect with it. A holding cell in a police headquarters is as good as any place. Let everything continue as it must.”

Sophia looked over at Titus.

“It’s your decision, Madam Mayor,” Titus said.

Before the mayor could make her decision, the creature appeared on its own on the sidewalk outside the entrance.

The police pulled out their pistols and pointed at the creature.

“Put your guns away,” Wang said. “Do you think you could harm a creature that can leave your holding cell with such ease?”

Fischer went and stood beside the creature.

“This beast killed Professor Lazan,” a policeman said.

“That wasn’t Aaron Lazan,” Wang said. “Aaron Lazan died years ago. Lazan was the true monster. A liar, a manipulator, an adulterer, and a man who molested numerous students over the years. He fooled everyone, including his wife, and compromised the futures of many young women. All his colleagues, including you, Madame Mayor, paid no attention. No one wanted to see or know.”

The beast pointed up to what had not been there previously, a golden citadel at the top of a mountain, near the CN Tower. The beast flew up to it.

Everyone watched it fly high over the city and then toward the Citadel.

“It will wait for you,” Fischer said to Titus. “There you can retire. The climb begins at Queen Street West and John Street. You have three choices. That is one. The best choice.”

Titus looked at Fischer and asked himself whether this was another effort to obstruct Titus as Fisher had obstructed Ratanna. Or a subtle way to get rid of him. Or part of Gretchen’s plan. After all, the golden citadel was the resting place of the gods. Was Rendenna or Titus ready for the citadel?

 

29

 

Titus sat in his cubicle among several other cubicles on each side of a long hallway that eventually led to the Regime Council chamber and the six offices that surrounded it. Across the hallway was Karna in his cubicle.

“No one’s working,” Karna whispered. “The economy has stopped.”

Titus nodded.

“They think the rebels are going to attack the water works and the nuclear power plant some time this week.”

“That’s only part of it,” Titus said. “They’re planning on dropping two hydrogen bombs next week.”

After he said the words, Titus rose and began to walk up the corridor to the Council room. Karna followed.

“The Arbiters have bombs?” Karna asked.

“No, the Council of the Regime has bombs. The Arbiters want to stop them.”

Titus walked into the meeting of the Council without being invited.

The six members of the Council were all dressed alike. They had on metallic colored suits, white shirts, and red ties. A black square-shaped hat was on each of their heads. A large red sash wrapped around their chests. The Council chamber itself, with no windows, was like entering a metal tomb in the shape of a two bowls fitted into each other. The lower bowl had at its bottom the Council chamber with the Council members. In several tiers the public could sit in the seats surrounding the central Council chamber. The upper bowl had a few lights and an upper area for visitors to sit.

The Council, however, was not officially in session. There were no visitors or public views. All the doors to the Council area were locked.

The members wondered how Titus managed to enter the Council chamber. They alerted a security guard immediately to escort Titus and Karna out of the chambers. Titus shut the door and locked it so that the guard could not enter.

The guard was preparing to blast open the lock when the Chairwoman stopped him.

“What do you want?” the Chairwoman asked Titus. “Analysts are not permitted in Council meetings.”

“Why are you dropping the bombs?”

The Council members looked at each other in surprise.

“Yes, I know about it,” Titus said. “Why are you going to such extremes?”

“They’re planning to attack us. As an analyst, you must know the state of our defenses. We are weak. We can’t win. We have to frighten them away or our civilization will cease to exist.”

“I’ve spoken to them,” Titus continued. “I have—”

“—you’ve spoken to them? How?”

“Is that important? They’re not going to attack. They think you’re going to attack. They’re as afraid as you are.”

Several Council members began to confer and whisper with each other.

“Who are you?” the Chairwoman asked.

“I work in Document Analysis. As does my associate here. Karna.”

“You think we should stop, based on your analysis?”

“Titus is a god,” Karna blurted out, frustrated that they were not listening.

“I see,” the Chairwoman said sceptically. “Well, even a god must provide some proof.”

She stood up and went to unlock the door.

“Do you have proof of their decision not to attack?” she asked. “There can be no mistake.”

Another Council member said,

“Even better, prove that you’re a god.”

“Tell them how many will survive if they drop the bombs?” Karna said.

“Yes, tell us,” the Chairwoman said, “though we’re quite aware of the numbers.”

“For a short time,” Titus quietly spoke, “some will survive. But eventually the radiation will kill most of those near its center. The rest will bear horrible consequences for the future. Hundreds of millions will be infected. Those who don’t die will have continual physical and mental problems. All life forms will be changed. Generations will pass before balance returns to the planet.”

The Chairwoman unlocked the door. The security guard led them both out of the building.

They faced the entrance doors on the sidewalk.

“We must return,” Karna said, looking up at the floor where they had been. “You can stop this. They don’t understand. Perhaps we should see if the Arbiters can help us.”

“The Arbiters are caught in the middle,” Titus said, “between the rebels and the Council. “They’re activists trying to make change. Neither side will listen to them. We must join the revolt.”

“Why not bring the two sides together?” Karna asked. “Let them fight it out in the conference room. You could do that.”

“Even if I did, and they made a truce, it wouldn’t last. Another group will spring up with the same attitudes.”

“So no change is possible? You watch the world destroy itself?”

“Change is possible. Dropping the bombs is change. That’s their choice. Dropping the bombs will make change.”

“But you could—”

“—I told them the rebels will not attack. Did it change their minds? Ultimately, they must take responsibility. Every scenario is like the Great War. Somehow leaders, and yes, even their citizens, feel they must take action to guard their honor or prove they’re manly or protect their race or nationalities or clan or act on their prejudices. They believe this action or that can solve their problems and they have no trust in each other. Tribalism is the root. But they must choose. Each of them.”

They walked down the steps toward the subway. Several people asked for money. To each Titus gave a few coins.

On the platform, a man held a sign: THE WORLD COULD END TOMORROW. CHOOSE WISELY.

“Don’t you know what will happen and when?” Karna asked.

“Suppose I did. You think I could force someone to have empathy and practice compassion and eliminate selfishness and chauvinism? Remember the old proverb: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. They must have the will.”

Karna’s face was grim. He shook his head in despair.

“The only way that endures,” Titus said, “is when people practice without thought, not because of laws or out of fear or because they’re brain-washed, or if choices are made easy for them or because someone can fix it if they screw up. Are there such people? Of course there are.”



[i] What are you doing here?
[ii] First time. We heard about this place and thought we would try it.
[iii] I’m impressed. How do you like it?
[iv] Easy.
[v] OK, well, see you in class on Monday.

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